Nobody listening to victims of Istanbul nightclub attack

“It was a popular spot for celebrating,” 35-year-old Jake Raak said of the upmarket Reina nightclub on the banks of the Bosporus in a fashionable part of Istanbul. A year ago, he and a group of friends from around the world had got together to celebrate the New Year.

“We were a group of nine people. Seven of us were shot,” he said.

Suspected Islamic State militant Abdulkadir Masharipov, a 34-year-old Uzbek citizen, entered the Reina nightclub shortly after midnight and began spraying revellers with bullets from an assault rifle. Thirty-nine people were killed and dozens more wounded.

A year on, Masharipov’s trial began on Dec. 10, but little has been done to involve the victims of the crime and weigh the impact the attack has had on their lives.

“I had no idea until you told me,” said Raak when informed the trial had started, despite having contacted the FBI and the Turkish and U.S. consulates several times for information. “I think people should know the long-lasting effects of this horrible, horrible event,” he said.  

Samia Maktouf is a French lawyer representing the families of a young couple killed in the Reina attack. They left behind a six-month-old daughter. Maktouf has wide experience representing those affected by similar attacks in France, but is surprised by the lack of victim involvement in the judicial process in Turkey.

“The victims were not represented in the trial. The defendant’s attorney couldn’t understand why the victims should be heard, why we should ask questions,” she said. “But luckily the president is doing a great job, and he allowed it.”

Maktouf said it was important for the accused to know the suffering caused. “It’s not about vengeance, but about dignity,” she said. “It is important to speak up. You have been attacked just because you are part of a society, and you should stand up against what happened to you.”

But lack of support from the authorities, both in Turkey and abroad, is keeping victims in the dark.

Raak was shot in the leg. He was in pain, but said he was mostly angry at the shooter. “We had no defence. I am a big guy, but he is 50 feet away shooting at us with an automatic weapon, and we are completely unarmed. We were powerless,” he said.

Television footage outside Reina that night showed Raak being taken to an ambulance. “I don’t handle things on a typical way, and people viewed this as ‘this guy is very strong, he can handle this’, but the long-lasting effects are very different,” he said.

Still recovering from his injury, his business suffered greatly from his six-month absence.

Back in the United States, Raak receives no support from authorities there because the attack took place abroad. If it had happened in the United States, he would probably have had access to a state fund for victims, and his medical bills would have been covered.

“I think the perception was that I was just going to be okay, but this is very serious. I’ve been in contact with other survivors from Reina, and some of the women didn’t leave their homes for six months. Me? I go out, but I have hyper-vigilance,” Raak said.

“Even the therapist almost wants to cry. They are not prepared for these situations,” he said. “It’s very different than war, where a soldier is given a gun, and he is going to fight a guy with a gun. He knows what is going to happen. The attack on innocents unarmed at a nightclub is very different.”

Twenty-three year-old Mehmet Kerim Akyıl was one of those killed in the attack. A Belgian citizen of Turkish origin, his relatives flew from Belgium to Istanbul and were one of the few families represented at the trial.

Akyıl was not supposed to be at Reina that night. He was planning to visit a friend in the southeast of Turkey and had stopped in Istanbul on the way. “He just wanted to celebrate New Year’s Eve,” said his brother, Kenan Akyıl. “Unfortunately, nobody knew he was at Reina.”

“He was such a unique person,” Kenan said. “I know you are going to tell me that everybody is unique, but he really was. He was always happy, always smiling and willing to help. He really had a golden heart.”

Kenan was in Belgium also out celebrating the New Year when a friend called him. “He told me about the attack, but I said ‘my brother is not there’. Then a second friend called, and I was worried. I called my brother’s hotel, I called the embassy, every police station in Istanbul and every service in Turkey to learn about my brother,” Kenan said.

In the morning, he received a phone called from his uncle: “Come to the airport. We are going to Istanbul,” the uncle said. Kenan said he drove so fast that he got a speeding ticket. “I have to go to court now, but it’s ok,” he said.

Apart from some local politicians and the Ministry of Interior in Belgium, Kenan said the family had not received any support from the authorities. They only learnt about the trial from the press. The father flew to Istanbul to hire a lawyer. “My parents went to the trial and they were very upset. There is no attention given to the victims or their families,” Kenan said. “Can you imagine how difficult it is?”

Kenan said he was proud of the support the family received from their community. “For 40 days, the mourning period according to Islamic traditions, our house was never empty. We felt the support of family and friends, but also of unknown people. We received like 150 letters from people who didn’t know us,” he said.

The family is to hold a ceremony for Kerim on Jan. 3. “We will send a message to those terrorists: that they will not succeed. And we will show love,” Kenan said.

In the meantime, they hope the new hearing of the trial, set for March, will shed some light on what happened that night. “We have lots of questions about the trial, like who was really behind the attack,” Kerim said.

From experience, Maktouf said she knows the answers to those questions are crucial for families to start healing.

Maktouf said it was important for the authorities to work together. “We need to cooperate, or we won’t be able to win.”

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